Foiled kidnapping thrusts publicity-shy billionaire into spotlight

HONG KONG • Sometimes even billionaires get kidnapped.

For He Xiangjian (picture), the founder of consumer-appliance maker Midea Group Co Ltd, it all started on Sunday afternoon, when five men broke into his villa in Foshan, Guangdong Province, threatening to hurt its residents. The ordeal ended early on Monday with the release of China’s seventh-richest person, after his son escaped and swam across a river to alert authorities. Five suspects were arrested, police said.

“This kind of kidnapping is very rare,” said Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, noting that police in mainland China have security measures in place to monitor the activities of local gangsters or crime syndicates. “Normally, they don’t do it when a thought just pops up in their mind, but spend time on the geographic location and the target’s daily schedule.”

Lui said he met He in 2000 and called him “a very down-to-earth person”.

He, 77, wasn’t the first mega-wealthy individual to be targeted.

In Hong Kong, people still recall when organised crime figure “Big Spender” Cheung Tze-keung captured Li Ka-shing’s son Victor on his way home from the office in 1996. He was released with a US$129 million (RM554.7 million) ransom, and the following year Cheung kidnapped late property tycoon Walter Kwok. Cheung was arrested, convicted and executed in China in 1998.

In 2015, Queenie Rosita Law, heiress of local clothing brand Bossini, was abducted from her Hong Kong home and held captive in a cave for four days until her father paid ransom, according to local media.

The residential golf resort where He lives, about 1km (0.6 miles) from Midea’s Foshan headquarters, has 24-hour security booths, checkpoints, and the tycoon reportedly has his own bodyguard.

“It is still possible to find a loophole,” Lui said. “Especially nowadays, the young second or third generation of rich families like to go to night clubs or other entertainment places where it’s crowded and complicated.”

He has a US$23 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and has been keeping a low profile since retiring as chairman in 2012. Chinese media reported he enjoys golf. His family’s He Art Museum — designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and featuring works by Pablo Picasso, Zao Wou-ki and Alexander Calder — indefinitely postponed its March opening because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The billionaire’s son, Jianfeng, didn’t succeed his father at Midea. Instead, he runs Infore Holding Group Co Ltd, an investment firm also based in Foshan.

On Tuesday, Midea disputed online rumours that the kidnappers were desperate vendors who didn’t receive payment from the company or couldn’t get a loan from Infore, according to a statement on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

Midea shares fell 1.9% yesterday, closing at their lowest price in three weeks. — Bloomberg